She likes her son best when he’s sleeping. At night, she sneaks into his bedroom, sits on the edge of his twin-size bed and watches his little chest rise and fall below the sheet. She places her lips on his temple and kisses him softly. It’s one of the few moments in the day when she feels tenderness toward him.
Each day at 3:35 p.m., her son jumps off the bus and bounds through the front door, bringing a mess of chaos and chatter with him. He is like a little tornado, interrupting her solitude. And all the bags: backpack, lunch box, soccer bag. In the mornings she neatly consolidates them, a feat he cannot recreate at the end of the day. She nags him to put his things away: the smelly soccer socks in the laundry, his half-empty lunch containers in the sink, his scuffed shoes in the cubby. He almost always forgets all these things.
Over Christmas break, he left a half eaten sunflower butter and jelly sandwich in his bag. You can’t send your kids to school with peanut butter anymore. When she found his sandwich in January, it was covered with green mold. Her husband tried to spin it as a fun science experiment, as if growing mold inside a backpack was educational.
She is not one of those mothers who enjoy volunteering in the classroom or sitting on committees or helping with homework. The truth is she could care less about any of those things. She spends her days alone, doing nothing, and prefers it like that. She had quit her job as a legal secretary to stay home with her son. She imagined trips to the library, pulling him in a red wagon behind her, and baking cookies, his little hands rolling out the dough with the miniature rolling pin. That was nine years ago. Nobody told her how hard it would all be.
She did not look for work when her son started school but told her husband she did. She didn’t want to go back to work—donning pantyhose and skirts and blouses only to trade serving her son for serving some other master—fetching coffee, scheduling depositions, transcribing letters while wearing a headset that had previously nestled on some other secretary’s head.
“All those years out of the work force and now nobody wants me!” she said night after night until her husband stopped asking.
The truth is she thinks she deserves these years of daytime silence after what she endured: his red-faced screams day in and day out, the sleepless nights, the way she existed for the sole purpose of feeding him, followed by months of opening cabinets and drawers, making a mess of everything. And the time he opened the bottle of Rogaine stored in a bathroom drawer and she rushed him to the emergency room. No, she didn’t know if he drank any of it. Was she supposed to watch him every god damn second?
All those trips to parks and playgrounds, both indoors and outdoors. Sitting on benches or leaning against walls while he ran and played, coming back to her only when he wanted juice or a snack, which she was expected to have endless supplies of in the diaper bag—the bag that marked her as a mother.
And all those mothers at the parks and playgrounds, glowing with the joy of it: how they loved it all. We’re so lucky, they murmured to each other, as if repeating it could make it true.
She’s not sure why she ever thought she could be like those mothers, why she ever thought she could be a mother. She had watched her own mother with a mixture of wonder and confusion: aprons tied over poufy skirts, baking muffins and pies day after day as if there was no greater pleasure.
She pretends as well as she can. For years she made small talk at those parks and playgrounds, murmuring along with the others—yes, we’re so lucky—feeling sorry for the childless and the working mothers, the ones missing out on all this. She kissed his skinned knees and translated his nonsensical babble for strangers. She sang lullabies and pureed squash. For a while she’d almost convinced herself. That she was like her mother, that she was like those other mothers, one of the lucky ones.
And then he was suddenly in grade school and his feet were almost as big as hers and his chubby cheeks were long gone and she read a study online that boys are now entering puberty at an average age of ten. One year away. How long until she finds Speed Stick and pubic hairs in his bathroom? How long until this long-limbed boy is a man? How long until her work here is done?